Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading list 2012

New Year's Eve! That day of the year noticeable solely for the fact that tradition dictates I don my tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches (which, worryingly over the course of the last few years seem to have come back into fashion) and studiously run through all the books I've read over the course of the last 12 months. In all the years I've been doing this, 2012 marks the year where I read the fewest books - just 26 - but with good reason! I spent a significant portion of the first half of the year reading the Bikram Yoga dialogue both before going on training and while I was in LA. As such, it wasn't until I got back to the UK at the end of June that I really got to throw myself into the mass of books I'd built up on my bedside table. If I was counting the dialogue, I'm pretty sure 2012's tally would number in the thousands, because lord knows I read that thing cover to cover and back to front more times than I can remember.

As usual, I'm grading each book like a college professor would grade his students (A+ EXCELLENT, C or below, AVOID), and providing links to each title which will take you through to an appropriate online store where you can buy your own copy to cherish, clutch adoringly, or lick.

Anyway, let's crack on, yes?

01. The Devil all the Time by Donald Ray Pollock - Stunningly brutal novel that traces the entwined lives of a number of different characters over the course of several years. Pollock's short story collection Knockemstiff remains one of my favourite books; this debut novel confirms my belief that he is a masterful storyteller: A+
02. Pronto by Elmore Leonard - The first Leonard novel to feature Raylan Givens (the focus of the brilliant TV show Justified) sees the U.S. marshall trying to protect a Miami bookmaker who flees to Italy after being targeted by a mob boss. The character of Raylan really shines through in this book, but when he wasn't present I felt something was lacking and actually found this a little bit disappointing: B-
03. The Very Best of Dick Tracy: Bullets, Battles and Bad Guys by Chester Gould - A lovely collection of classic Tracy strips that makes you realise just how groundbreaking and brutal Gould's work was. The book serves as more of an introduction to the strip rather than a genuine best of collection, but it worked in that it left me wanting to read more: A
04. Power Pack Classic Volume 2 by Louise Simonson - The second volume of one of my favourite eighties comic books finds the Power Pack kids continuing to get to grips with their abilities, and includes the beginning of the story arc I have fond memories of as a kid: B+
05. The Complete Peanuts 1975-1976 by Charles Schulz - The first volume of this series that I've read for two years, and every bit as wonderful as I remember. Beautiful art and longer ongoing storylines really draw you into Schulz's classic, life-affirming comic strip: A+
06. Star Trek Volume 1 - Collected edition of the new Star Trek comic that retells episodes of the classic original series in the new JJ Abrams Star Trek movie universe, in this instance 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' and 'The Galileo Seven.' An enjoyable read, but if I'm honest these two tales don't differ significantly enough from the original episodes to make them an essential read - an indication perhaps of just how good those 1960s stories were: B+
07. Driven by James Sallis - gritty sequel to Sallis' novel Drive (the basis for the Ryan Gosling film of the same name) which picks up Driver's story seven years later when his attempt to fade into anonymity is cruelly ripped away from him with with the brutal murder of his girlfriend. It's a quick read - just 147 pages - but a worthy follow up for fans of the earlier book: B+
08. Son of Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne - Book VII in Payne's ongoing Youth in Revolt saga sees the spotlight fall on Nick Twisp's 15 year-old son, Scott. The protagonist may have changed but the formula - the lust-fuelled adventures of a journal-writing teen - remains the same. However, while it was an amusing read, I felt this latest instalment in the series lacked the deft comic touch that made earlier volumes so memorable: B+
09. John Carter: Movie Novelization/John Carter of Mars - A Princess of Mars by Stuart Moore/Edgar Rice Burroughs - A nice hefty volume containing the novelization of the 2012 John Carter film and ERB's original 1911 story. The novelization is a perfectly good adaptation of the movie, while A Princess of Mars is a wonderful pulpy action adventure story: A
10. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim - The story of two young men who shared a harrowing experience as children, leading one to believe he had been abducted by aliens, and the other to enter into a life of dangerous sexual encounters: B+
11. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach - Thoroughly enjoyable story of a young man playing college baseball and the lives of those around him. A solid story, well-written characters and a wonderful end, but I must admit I did get a little lost in the parts that were baseball-heavy. Still, worth a read: A-
12. The Adventures of Venus by Gilbert Hernandez - A slight, quickly read collection of all-ages stories focusing on Beto's Venus character. Not his best work, but charming nonetheless: B
13. Love and Rockets: New Stories #5 by Los Bros Hernandez - The latest L&R annual sees Beto's return to the fictional town of Palomar, and a new Vivian 'Frog-mouth'-centric story from Jaime. This issue was lacking in Maggie action after Jaime's stellar tales in the previous two volumes, but nevertheless remains a brilliant read: A-
14. The Song of Roland by Michel Rabagliati - The latest entry in Rabagliati's ongoing series of semi-autobiographical Paul graphic novels documents the latest developments in the character's life (moving his family to the suburbs) and the heart-wrenching final months of his father-in-law's life. Wonderful: A+
15. God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls by Jaime Hernandez - Fantastically enjoyable superhero romp filled with the same depth of character and charm as the author's more familiar Locas stories: A
16. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - An engrossing and insightful, often painfully honest, biography of the founder of Apple. Jobs' had an incredible life and Isaacson has written a fascinating glimpse into his world that does not shy away from revealing every aspect of his complex personality. Well worth a read: A+
17. Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard - The sequel to Leonard's earlier novel, Pronto, finds U.S. marshall Raylan Givens searching for bookmaker Harry Arno, who's become the unwitting hostage of Palm Beach playboy Chip Ganz. A far more enjoyable and breezy read than Pronto, with some great dialogue, although I found the plot somewhat slight: B
18. Raylan by Elmore Leonard - Leonard's latest novel returns to the character of Raylan Givens following the success of the TV series Justified. While I enjoyed it for the most part, the book seemed to follow a number of plotlines that have already been covered by the show, making this feel more like a lightly padded novelization than an original work: B
19. Star Trek Volume 2 - The second collected edition of comic book stories set in the new movie universe tackles a retelling of the classic episode 'Operation: Annihilate!' and an original work entitled Vulcan's Vengeance. The retelling is a by-the-numbers revision of my favourite Star Trek episode, and suffers by failing to bring anything new to the table save for a little conflict between Kirk and his brother; Vulcan's Vengeance, meanwhile, at least expands upon the storylines and general universe brought into being by the 2009 movie. Two volumes in and as readable as it is, I'm still not entirely sure what the point of this series is: B
20. Batman: Death by Design by Chip Kidd; art by Dave Taylor - Beautifully illustrated, wonderfully written graphic novel that finds Batman investigating a series of architectural disasters in Gotham City. By far the best Batman story I've read in a long time: A
21. The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire - Haunting graphic novel about a young man trying to reconcile the loss of his father 20 years earlier as he faces the imminent arrival of his own son: A
22. I Just Want My Pants Back by David J. Rosen - Enjoyable story about a young guy coming to terms with what it means to be a responsible adult in the wake of losing his favourite trousers after a one-night stand: B+
23. Star Trek: That Which Divides by Dayton Ward - My first Kindle read was a decidedly average Star Trek novel. Maybe it's just me, because this has glowing reviews on Amazon, but I felt the story was overly long and lacking in excitement, there was too much explanation of technology and dry descriptions of locations, and the characters felt like pale imitations of the vibrant originals I'm used to from the TV show. Also, very odd, absolutely pointless hint of romance between Chekov and M'ress from the animated series. Meh: C+
24. Power Pack Classic Volume 3 by Louise Simonson - The third collection of Power Pack comics from the eighties contains the storyline that first got me into this series all those years ago. A fun, nostalgic read: B+
25. Superman: Kryptonite by Darwyn Cooke; art by Tim Sale - Enjoyable graphic novel recounting Superman's first encounter with the one element that can kill him: B+
26. Invincible: The Ultimate Collection Vol. 7 by Robert Kirkman; art by Ryan Ottley - Another fine collected edition of the most enjoyable superhero comic out there. If you want to see alien heads being ripped off left, right and centre in glorious fashion amidst an intergalactic war, this is the book for you: A

There you go then: some awesome books, some not so awesome books, and some decidedly average books. And as is usual for me, I've already got a load sitting on my bedside table just waiting to bung up the first few months of next year's list. 2013 is definitely going to see me getting some more Kindle action too; I can't wait to read some more stuff on my little glowing friend, and with a bit of luck they'll be better than the book I chose to pop my Kindle cherry with.

Happy New Year you cheeky little buggers.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: The year in reviews (sorta)

OK, so it's here at this time of the year that I traditionally write about what books, films, TV shows and music I have enjoyed over the course of the last 12 months. But I'll be honest, 2012 has been a bit of a weird old year for me, specifically because I spent 10 weeks in LA but also because the months since I've been back have been some sort of weird old whirlwind; I genuinely don't feel like it's the end of the year even though I just had a lovely Christmas. More to the point, because the latter half of this year has been a bit odd, I really haven't had the time to catch that many movies or watch that much TV.

That being the case, I'm going to break with tradition and just kind of list the meagre offerings of things I liked rather than doing a top three countdown. That OK with you? Tough if it's not. BOOM!

I started the year with The Devil all the Time, a new novel by Donald Ray Pollock, which I loved, then followed it up with such great books as Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, some new Love and Rockets, and Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, which is an insightful glimpse into the life of a remarkable man. Perhaps my favourite read of the year, however, was Michel Rabagliati's The Song of Roland, the latest instalment in his series of semi-autobiographical graphic novels featuring the character Paul; it's a heart-wrenching, beautifully written and illustrated book that's deserving of your time.

Along the way were some disappointments: I read three Elmore Leonard novels, none of which really grabbed me, and the latest in C.D. Payne's Youth in Revolt series was a bit of a let-down after the hilarity of earlier volumes.

I know lots of other people hated it, but by far my favourite movie of the year was John Carter; it was, I thought, a wonderfully realised, slightly old-fashioned action adventure film that truly sold me on Edgar Rice Burrough's vision of Mars (or Barsoom, I should say). Well worth a look, in my opinion. Elsewhere, I liked Prometheus, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dredd 3D, and The Dark Knight Rises, even if I did think it was overly long and lacking the coherent feel and strong antagonist of its predecessor. Oh, and Battleship. Everyone hated that but I thought it was immensely enjoyable.

Movies I didn't like? Not many, really - or at the very least not many I can remember. I seem to recall thinking The Avengers wasn't as great as everyone else thought it was, purely because I felt the first hour spent getting the team together was just a bit slow. Once the action got going it was good fun.

TV Shows!
OK, I've barely watched any television this year. I saw a few episodes of Archer's third season, which was great, and only half a dozen of One Tree Hill's final year. I started watching Friday Night Lights because everyone raves about it but found it a bit boring. Maybe it's just a bit too football heavy for me? Most recently I watched the first season of the original Twilight Zone which is fantastic, and I've got One Tree Hill Season Nine and Supernatural Season Seven to watch, so maybe they'll figure in my year in reviews next year?

I did watch the first season of I Just Want My Pants Back, based on the book of the same name by David J. Rosen, which I found to be a great little show - rather like a slightly more gritty, saucy, and more realistic version of Friends with a nice line in humour and some fun characters. Sadly it was axed in May after just 12 episodes, but don't let that stop you from giving it a whirl.

Saw Panic! At the Disco in concert in February who were as awesome as ever, as were Matchbox Twenty at Shepherds Bush Empire (their new album, North, is worthy of a mention too; bit different from their past records, but really good once I'd listened to it a few times) and Willy Mason who I saw at the Scala. Album-wise? I enjoyed the soundtrack to the Dredd 3D movie - really nice and grungy industrial sound - and there were fantastic expanded editions of the soundtracks to a few of the Star Trek movies. The Rolling Stones - who I didn't get to see live because the ticket prices were EXORBITANT - released a brilliant new song called Doom and Gloom, and Sufjan Stevens made my Christmas by releasing a new festive boxset mixing traditional songs with some utterly brilliant new tracks (the haunting Christmas in the Room and 12 minute long Christmas Unicorn among the most notable).

Other stuff!
Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in LA - perhaps the best thing I've ever done with my life. Wonderful city, wonderful people, and it all led to a wonderful new career at Bikram Yoga Chiswick and Bikram Yoga Surbiton upon my return. I genuinely don't think I've ever been happier, and it's ridiculous that I get to call what I do work; no one should be able to have this much fun and get to call it a job.

Elsewhere: Kindle Paperwhite: love it.

Same time next year? I promise to be more comprehensive then.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mix CD 2012

I don't know what the hell happened, but two seconds ago it was September and now - BOOM! - here I am putting this year's mix CD together.

Unlike last year where I was really rather organised, this year's was slapped together last minute. But before you accuse me of just popping any old shit on a shiny plastic disc, let me tell you this: most of the leg work was actually done for me. How?! Well, before I strutted off to LA to do my Bikram Yoga Teacher Training in April, Big Bro gave me a playlist of LA-themed songs that he thought would work as a lovely soundtrack to my West Coast experience. And by jove he was right.

So basically this year's mix CD is an ode to my time in LA, my newfound love of California, and the incredible people I met on training. It's a combination of songs chosen by my bro for me, and a few that came to mean a lot to me while on training (though not, you may be relieved to know, Barry Manilow's Copacobana, which I couldn't get out of my head while we did posture clinics in the hotel's cabanas).

And so without further ado…

01. The Keeper by Chris Cornell
Big Bro has been banging on at me for years to try to get me to listen to Chris Cornell and this lovely acoustic song, which he put on my Going to California playlist, is the one that finally sold me. It's a really lovely, gentle tune, and the first song I listened to upon setting foot on U.S. soil - which was rather fitting as the opening words are "I come from far away, my boots don't know this ground, but they know it's real…" I listened to it a lot while in LA, and I never once tired of it.

02. Going to California by Led Zeppelin
I've always been able to take or leave Led Zep, not quite understanding why everyone raves so much about them, but this song, like The Keeper, just kind of encapsulated how it felt to uproot myself from West London and travel halfway around the world to spend a few months on the West Coast of America. It's got a lovely sunny, understated acoustic vibe about it - very laid back and honest, much like how California felt to me. A couple of lines in this track really stood out for me - "took my chances on a big jet plane" kind of tied in nicely with my need to conquer my fear of flying, and "I wondered how tomorrow could ever follow today" perfectly matched my mood after some of the very best days of my life were spent in LA.

03. Ain't Wastin' Time No More by The Allman Brothers Band
The first time I heard this song the opening piano reminded me of something from an old Peanuts cartoon. But seconds later it explodes into one of the gentlest, most laid-back rock classic rock songs you could ever hope to hear. I remember one day walking down to Westchester Village near the hotel where we did training and this song started playing on my iPhone. I got a little strut going on as I walked down the sunny sidewalk, pondering the lyrics "time goes by like a hurricane" and thinking how right the song was - how we should enjoy what time we have here as best we can.

04. Take it Easy by The Eagles
Nothing says sunny Californian vibes like The Eagles, right? Right. Love this song, and it took on added meaning one evening when Bikram himself said to us "you guys, you've been working hard. Take it eaaaaaasy."

05. Tumbling Dice by The Rolling Stones
I've loved this song for years - it's one of my favourite Stones songs, in fact - and it was a great choice by Big Bro to put on my Going to California playlist. I've got a load of different versions of Tumbling Dice, but the one I'm going with here is off the Rarities: 1971-2003 album. It's an off-cut from the Stones' Stripped acoustic album and how they decided to leave it off I don't know. I love how it starts out all ramshackle-like before exploding into life. And as a bonus, it reminds me off the night I spent on training teaching lovely Aussie trainee Dayna how to dance like Mick Jagger.

06. Say Shava Shava from the soundtrack to the film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
We were made to watch quite a few Bollywood movies while on training. Some were really great fun, some were … not so much. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham was one of my favourites - it's actually a really entertaining and very funny film. This song - which I genuinely ADORE - became part of the unofficial soundtrack to the whole training experience, and we even took to doing the dance, complete with shoulder wobbles, hip-bobbing and full-on arm movements just like in the video below. We actually got pretty good at it. Long story short: you can't beat a movie with an epic dance sequence slap-bang in the middle of it.

07. You've Got the Love by Florence and the Machine
I've never been a big fan of Florence and the Machine, but that changed during training thanks to a lovely lady called Mari. Around the time we were all really struggling with the gruelling schedule, the late nights and early starts, and all manner of injuries and illness, Mari said something along the lines of "if you're feeling like shit just listen to this song and know there's always someone there to help." She was right, and every time I hear this track now I can't help but think of her and my fellow trainees and remember how we really were all there for one another.

08. A Billion Grains of Sand by The Californian
How could I compile a CD in homage to my time in California and not include a song by one of my favourite bands, The Californian? Simple answer: I couldn't. This track is by far my favourite song off the band's self-titled debut album. It's a short, spunky blast of perfection infused with that inimitable West Coast feel, and I listened to it A LOT while exploring the small part of LA that I came to call home for 10 weeks. My one disappointment about my time in Los Angeles was that I never got to see the band play live; hopefully I'll rectify that some time in the future.

09. California Waiting by Kings of Leon
I kind of went through a phase of loving Kings of Leon a few years back, then got bored of them and have basically ignored them ever since. This song, however, is just brilliant. It's another one of those tracks that I loved to listen to while wandering around LA, soaking in the atmosphere and getting horrifically sunburnt. I adore the simplicity of the lyric "every little thing is going to be just right," which was another of those little things that helped get me through some of the more difficult times at training, and it also helps that it's a song you can dance around to like a loon.

10. We Are Young by Fun.
Another song that became part of our training soundtrack, and I can remember exactly at what point. It was actually after training had finished and a few of us who'd stayed back in LA were in a car driving back from Manhattan Beach to the hotel when this came on the radio. We didn't know who it was but we all sang along to it, because after everything we'd been through, as the song said, we felt young, like we could burn brighter than the sun. Simple as that. As soon as I got back to my room I googled the lyrics, found out it was by Fun. and moments later had downloaded it.

11. Love Is life - Pyar Karo by Bikram Choudhury
Yeah, no kidding - this is a song by the guy who created the yoga I trawled over to LA to learn how to teach. Actually Bikram's got a couple of albums, and at the end each of his classes as we lay on our mats in savasana he would have one of his songs played out to us. Most were ballads, but this one, which I suspect he had kept back for the explosion of utter joy he knew we'd experience at the end of our very last class with him on the final Friday evening, is some sort of utterly phenomenal rave track. I remember like it was yesterday how this song started playing at the end of that class, and how we all jumped up and started dancing around the Radisson's ballroom/yoga room with a combination of relief, excitement and joy that we'd survived 'killing ourselves for nine weeks in Bikram's torture chamber.' This, perhaps more than anything else I've included on this CD, reminds me most of that remarkable time I spent in LA.

Sadly I can't find a link to it anywhere. But trust me, while it may not mean as much to you as it does to me, you NEED to hear this song at least one time.


So there we go: another year, another mix CD. Thanks to Big Bro for his unwitting help in compiling this one; there were so many songs that he included on the playlist he made for me that I came to associate with specific moments from my time in California that it would've been impossible to include them all - he did a grand job. And big love to everyone I met at training who had a special song that meant something to them - HI GUYS! I miss you all each and every day.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How I learnt to love ebooks

Against everything I stand for, an incredible thing happened last week: I got a Kindle.

If you know anything about me one thing you'll know for sure is that I'm passionate about books - the way they look, the way they feel, and the way they smell; you can't beat the smell of a good book. Let's not beat around the bush - I'm basically a book pervert. I love them as objects; I love that every shelf in my house is heaving under the weight of gorgeous books.

But I also get the ebook thing. For a long time right up until I left my old company I was constantly banging on about digitising our old books and releasing them as ebooks. I released my own book as a digital version first, a good few months before the print one burst into life (while we're on the subject, here's some shameless whoring: whichever version shivers yer timbers YOU SHOULD TOTALLY BUY IT!). Anyway, I totally got that people wanted the convenience of having a small device that could hold loads of books rather than actually have loads of books. I just didn't necessarily want one myself.

I was basically the beardy dude who still buys vinyl while all the kids are downloading mp3s.

And it wasn't helped by the fact that early Kindles were pretty clunky looking things that looked like they'd fallen off the wall of a bad 1970s sci-fi film. They lacked the simple elegance of, say, my beloved iPad. I've dabbled in ebooks before, of course. I've read two on my iPad.

The danger here, though, is that I'm really easily distracted. With the iPad it's too easy for me to stop reading and start checking my email. And twitter. And Facebook. And, ooo, I'll just have a quick go on Angry Birds.

It took me weeks to read my first ebook, which is shocking because it was Winnie the Pooh and let's face it, that thing's hardly War and Peace in length.

So reading on my iPad was a BAD IDEA and Kindles were ugly. Hooray for real books!

But then all of a sudden kindles became quite nice looking things (dare I say a little bit sexy) and I kind of went 'ooo,' with a little high-pitched upturn at the end. The real turning point came when they announced the Kindle Paperwhite back in October - a touchscreen ereader with a lovely backlight so you can read it in the dark and I came to the realisation that I really quite liked the idea of being snuggled down in bed reading in the dark.

Another factor was that every now and then I like to read a really shitty Star Trek novel. I'm not a massive fan of Star Trek novels these days - I think they're pretty badly written stories by numbers - but who doesn't enjoy a crappy easy to read book once in a while? I reasoned that if I got a kindle I could hide my Trekkie shame away on a digital bookshelf rather than display it for all to see on my already straining real one.

And so I ordered a Kindle Paperwhite 3G.

It turned up last week and against all my ingrained expectations I love it, quite possibly a little too much. It's so refreshingly honest in the fact that it is only an ereader and does not try to be an all singing all dancing device like an iPad. It's light, a brilliant, compact size (I can hold it in one hand while holding a cup of tea in the other), and it's even got a bit of a grain on the screen to make it feel more like paper.

My first purchase was a shitty Star Trek novel, which is living up to expectations by being a bit shitty, but a remarkable thing is happening: the kindle genuinely seems to have reawakened my passion for reading. I'm pretty sure if I was reading the physical copy of the Trek book I would currently be stalled somewhere around page 50; with the Kindles I'm just excited about reading and am over halfway through at the time of writing. And I'm already thinking about what I want to read on it next.

Remarkably, I've also come to the realisation that it's not just shitty Star Trek novels I want to read on it, either. I can genuinely see myself buying a significant proportion of my books on it. Definitely not graphic novels or beautifully designed and packaged books that just demand to be bought as a physical item, but definitely most of the average paperbacks I would otherwise buy.

What's even more exciting is that a lot of old, out of print books are available on Kindle too. Yes, I can finally finish reading William Shatner's Tekwar series. You don't know how exciting I find that prospect.

Basically, I'm sold.

Now, we just need Glade to produce an old book smell plugin air freshener and the future will well and truly have arrived.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

The frape incident

Tragic news, my friends: this week I was BRUTALLY FRAPED.

This is how it happened:

I went to the studio early on Tuesday evening to do a bit of teacher timetabling work, and also because I wanted to practice the 6.30pm class before teaching the 8.15. So I got there and I do the scheduling (working so hard, I might add, that the tip of my tongue was poking out the corner of my mouth), which involves keeping an online schedule, an excel spreadsheet, and a wall chart up to date, as well as letting the other members of Team Bikram Yoga Surbiton know what's going on via Facebook.

At some point after finishing the work, however, I leave the office and mill about in reception before heading into class without, it turns out, LOGGING OFF FROM FACEBOOK.

So I practice the 6.30 (which was a lovely class to take part in) and teach the 8.15 (which was a lovely class to teach), meaning that I'm away from any form of contact for well over three hours. After seeing all my students out a little after 10pm I head into the changing rooms, shower, and it's then, as I'm sitting in my pants checking my email on my phone that I realise something is amiss.

Twenty-one emails.

Twenty-one emails - all saying '[whoever] left a comment on your status update.'

That's odd, I thought, as I hadn't updated my status update in a couple of days - why would so many people be commenting on an old status?

And it's then that I saw a comment from one of my teacher training pals that said 'are you coming out love?' that realisation dawned.

I literally threw on my trousers, threw open the door to the men's changing rooms and shouted out our lovely Tuesday night receptionist "WHO FRAPED ME!?"

"I'M NOT ALLOWED TO SAY!" she squeaked back while attempting to hide behind the front desk.

"WHO WAS IT?!" I demanded. "WAS IT-"

And then I realised I only had myself to blame.

Back in the summer our lovely manager Shiv had left her Facebook open and I'd changed her status to say something like 'Tim Leng is my favourite teacher. So masculine, such a strong voice. Sometimes I sit by the studio door with a wistful look on my face just listening to him teach.'

At the time she had vowed revenge, but I assured her it would never happen because I was always so careful about logging off of Facebook. The one time, months later, when I had slipped up and she'd pounced - like a frapey ninja.

'I think it is time to let the real Tim be free. I hope you can all accept it,' she had written.

And while it was a very ambiguous statement, everyone had decided it meant I was coming out.

My favourite comments included:

• 'I am ready for the real Tim.'
• The aforementioned 'Are you coming out love?'
• 'Hi Yogi, I hope this means what I think it does. [Smiley face] Exciting!!! Xoxo
• Be free Timothy! We love you. xx

Rather than be utterly incensed, I actually found the whole thing hilarious, and later congratulated Shiv on what I dubbed The Best Frape Ever. And what's really lovely is that everyone was so supportive of me coming out - but, boys, I'm sorry to say there will be no Timmy love for you other than the platonic kind. And girls? I'm sorry to say I'm still on the prowl looking to ensnare one of your kind as The Future Mrs Leng, however much you might all shudder at the thought.

That said, I was a little bit surprised at how everyone's attitude was all, like, 'oh, you're finally coming out? About time mate.'


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Things I like about America

Shamelessly stealing the title of one of my favourite books, Things I Like About America, I thought I'd reminisce about some of the things I, er, liked about America while I was off on training.

OK, so let's get this straight from the get-go: training was not a holiday and we didn't really have that much time to sashay around LA and be all touristy and shit. But I did get to see pretty much everything I wanted to see before I went out there, with the exception of The Griffith Park Observatory which apparently you really need a car to get to and I didn't have a car to get me to it. Of course, most people who have been to LA say you need a car to get pretty much anywhere which is maybe true, but I coped pretty well with the admittedly quite awful public transport network, in particular the Number 3 Big Blue Bus which I made use of quite a few times to take me to…

• Venice Beach. God, I love this place. A beautiful wide beach and some great little bo-ho-ey shops, one of which, Titanic, I bought an awesome hat in. Admittedly I think the more bo-ho-ey aspects of Venice might've got a little bit too much if I'd stayed there for longer than a few hours, but that's fine because to be honest it was the Santa Monica end of the beach that I really fell in love with.

Venice Beach. LOVE.
AMAAAAAAZING hat shop. With added Transformers!
• Santa Monica. Oh, Santa Monica. I want to live here. Such a nice vibe. And a massive shopping district (the 3rd Street Prom) just spitting distance away from the beach and the world-famous pier. Santa Monica is pretty much my idea of heaven. It had the most incredible Barnes and Noble bookstore too.

Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade, home to an amazing Barnes and Noble.
• I loved how everyone in LA was so polite too. I genuinely felt that everyone who served me in restaurants really deserved a tip, unlike some people over here who you begrudgingly give one to for fear they'll poo on your dinner next time you swing by. On one of my last days in the States I popped into the local Starbucks to buy a coffee and the barista had to ask me to repeat what I wanted because she was "mesmerised" by my accent. Bless. I'd been told Americans like a British accent, and between this and the dude in posture clinic who told me my voice was "sexy" I really think I could make it big in the U.S.

• Talking of restaurants: In 'N Out Burger and iHop. In 'N Out burgers are dirt cheap and without doubt the BEST burgers I've ever had. I pretty much ate two each week during training, and made sure I had my last meal in the States before heading home in this wonderful, wonderful burger joint. As for iHop: 24 hour pancake restaurant. Just think about that for a second.

iHop cinnamon stack. It was like having a massive cake for breakfast.
In 'N Out Burger: BEST. BURGERS. EVAH. And note the cool Dodge Challenger in the car park. I mean parking lot.
• Cars. I love cars, and so do Americans. I was overjoyed to see loads of Minis out there (including an old-skool 60s Cooper), and I loved all the big muscle cars: Mustangs, Cameros, Dodge Challengers - all tastefully pimped up for added awesomeness. I also fulfilled a life-long ambition to ride in a Ford Crown Victoria yellow cab (on several occasions, actually). For such a big car they were tiny inside, wallowed round like jelly on wheels (they rocked back and forth for several seconds after coming to a stop) and were generally outclassed by everything else on the road, but I loved them all the same.

• Bearing in mind we'd been warned at the beginning of training to be careful in LA and never go off anywhere on our own, I actually felt really safe in the city - even on those times I defied orders and went off on my own. I know: such a rebel.

• Hershey's Cookies 'n Creme. Thanks to fellow trainee Dayna for introducing me to this which is IMPOSSIBLE TO GET HOLD OF HERE AND I'M STILL IN THE MIDST OF WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS.
• Manhattan Beach. If Santa Monica living gets a bit too much for me I'd like to retire to this brilliant little town just down the coast. Packed full of amazing restaurants (hello The Kettle), little touristy shops, and beautiful houses, I'm pretty sure I could slum it here. They even filmed The OC there so is it any wonder I felt at home?

• I got to do this:

And things I didn't like about America?

• LA, seriously, sort your public transport infrastructure out please.

• Beverly Hills and all the real touristy places. They felt a bit too … pristine?

Bit too perfect, if you knows what I means.
• LA is so damn far away.

Could do with being closer.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The yoga bubble: Part 4

So when all's said and done, despite all the late nights and early mornings, the punishing schedule and the moments when I just wanted it to be over and done with, Bikram Yoga Teacher Training was without doubt the most incredible experience of my life, and as we neared the end of our nine week journey I wanted nothing more than for it to carry on indefinitely.

Me and Boss, around the midway point, I think.
In those nine weeks I made friends whose company I have missed greatly in the time since we went our separate ways, was empowered with skills that have opened up an incredible new career for me (one which I love dearly), and discovered things about myself that I never could have imagined.

Our final class with Bikram was 90 minutes (or possibly two hours - he did like to stretch his classes out a bit) of hard work and joy. At its conclusion he sat on his orange chair (or throne, as I liked to call it) atop the podium and surveyed us as the song Love is Life - Pyar Karo from his album Bikram Lounge played loudly over the PA system and we went from 400 focused yogis to a bunch of sweaty, half-naked loons jumping and dancing around, crying, laughing, and hugging each other, relieved it was over yet saddened it was finished.

The UK crew moments after our triumphant final class.
All that remained for us as Spring 2012's teacher trainees was graduation.

The graduation ceremony took place the next day in the very same ballroom that had been outfitted to serve as our yoga room, the heavy weave carpet on the floor still stained with the sweat and tears of nine weeks worth of hard work. The ceremony was to last several hours, split between speeches from Bikram and some of the other teachers who had shared their time and knowledge with us over the last couple of months, and the actual moment when all 411 graduating trainees got their moment on stage to collect their certificate (our license to kill, as Bikram would say!) and have our photo taken with the man himself.

Pretty much everyone made an effort to dress for the occasion and I was no different. I'd packed a whole outfit specially for this last day, which to be honest could've been seen as a bit stupid seeing as I only got to wear it once and I could've done with more room for shorts in my suitcase BUT on the plus side, it was nice to actually tart myself up for the first time in what felt like forever. In fact one of the staff teachers, a lovely chap named Balwan, said to me with a look of approval on his face "I think you are the sharpest dressed man here!" Such a nice compliment - and yet it nearly all went horribly wrong.

Let's not beat around the bush: basically, around the halfway point of graduation I noticed I'd split my trousers. Yes: split my trousers. Let's put it down to the fact that nine weeks of yoga had a remarkable effect on my thighs because they fitted fine before I left for LA. Whatever the reason, there I was, minutes away from receiving my certificate in front of 410 other trainees and loads of other assembled guests with a massive hole in my trousers. My dilemma was thus: leave it, get up on stage and hope no one noticed, or scurry back to my room and change my nice suit trousers for my black jeans, in the process ruining my carefully planned ensemble.

Just as I resolved to head back upstairs and change, however, a third option presented itself. Passing fellow trainee Jo as we all headed outside for a five minute break I hysterically babbled something along the lines of "LOOK! MY TROUSERS! MY TROUSERS!!" at which point she replied "I've got a sewing kit in my room - I can sort it out for you."

And that's how I ended up on the eighth floor of the Radisson with my trousers round my ankles, clasping my hands over my gentlemanly parts (I was wearing pants, don't be pervy, but even so…) while Jo stitched my trousers and two other trainees looked on with 'what-the-hell-is-going-on-here?!' expressions on their faces.

Panic over, we returned to the ballroom in time to receive our certificates and graduate as fully certified Bikram Yoga teachers.

One of the proudest moments of my life.
As the ceremony ended I hung around by the stage taking in everything that had happened, not only in that moment but in the weeks preceding it. And it was then that I noticed Bikram himself standing just a few feet away, seemingly lost in the moment very much like I was. I'd spoken to him a few times during the nine weeks and on occasion flashed him a thumbs up if he walked past me; I don't know why, but it always raised a smile from him and a thumbs up in return, so given the opportunity I'd always do it; as an aside without doubt my most surprising memory of contact with him came in one of our final classes when he ran between us to get to the podium and loudly slapped me on the arse en route.

Anyway, here I was standing not so far away from the man who in such a relatively short period of time had had such a profound effect on my life, and then for some reason he turned to look at me and I decided one last time to give him a thumbs up (I'd come to the conclusion by this point that if he didn't know my actual name he probably referred to me as 'Mr. Thumbs Up). He smiled, a really big Bikram grin, and then did the last thing I expected him to do: he walked straight over to me, clapped me on the shoulder then shook my hand. We exchanged a few words, ending with me thanking him. I hope he realised that I didn't just mean for the certificate he'd given me minutes earlier, or even for the nine weeks of training. What I really meant was to thank him for helping me fulfil the potential that has always existed within me but which had, perhaps, gone unused for too long. He nodded, smiled again, and then was gone. It was the last time I was to speak to him.

Disco tits at the graduation party. Might've had a wee drink or, um … yeah.
Throughout training Bikram had always spoken about the 'power of self-realisation,' and for so long it made such little sense to me. But there, with my certificate in my hand and Bikram disappearing into the crowd, I finally got it. Because of him I had conquered my fear of flying just to get to LA to do the training, then put myself through nine weeks of killing myself in "Bikram's torture chamber" only to come out the other side a better and stronger person.

"You people," Bikram had said to us at the very beginning, "are the most intelligent people in the world. Ask me why!"

We had mumbled a collective "why?" in return, at which point he had smiled, opened his eyes wide and pointed a finger at us.

"Because you made the decision to come here to learn from me, THAT'S why."

He wasn't wrong. Going to LA, committing myself to this path, was the best decision I have ever made - the best thing I have ever done with my life.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The yoga bubble: Part 3

The Yoga bubble: Part 3 With the half moon presentations out of the way we found ourselves with exciting new challenges to get to grips with. First up were anatomy lectures. What could've been a really dry subject proved to be one of the highlights of teacher training in the hands of the legend that is Dr. P as he prepared us for two tests that we’d have to do just two weeks later - and score above 70% in order to pass. Dr. P kept anatomy classes light and enjoyable even when they ran late into the night. Every day we looked forward to reading the slogan on his t-shirt (ranging from ‘I’m not that kind of doctor’ to simply ‘no’) and laughed as he slipped us the answers to test questions (recollection of the way he conspiratorially said “the FEMUR is the longest bone in the human body” into a radio mike still has me in hysterics).

Anatomy was cool, even if the chairs in the lecture room were incredibly uncomfortable when you were stuck in them for four hours at a time. And yes, I breezed the tests, thankyouverymuch.

About three or four weeks in (I forget exactly when because seriously, the whole thing kind of blends into one long yoga experience) we began posture clinics. This was basically a continuation of the half moon stuff we did earlier where we’d stand up in front of our peers and present the dialogue for individual postures, but rather than do it in front of all 400 or so trainees we were spilt into groups of around 20. Two random groups would then gather together in the cabanas round by the pool (this sounds way sexier than it actually was) and a couple of teachers, either visiting volunteers or staff teachers, would give you feedback on your presentation.

I was part of Group 11, and if you went to training and you're reading this, I'm sorry but Group 11 was THE BEST GROUP. And if you're going to the next training and you're in the next Group 11, shiiiiiiiiiit … You've got a lot to live up to. Every member of my group was a star in their own right and we were universally supportive of each other whenever one of us jumped up to present a posture. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people.

The legendary Group 11.
Some memorable highlights from posture clinics:

• Thinking I'd cocked up a posture and talking to the lead teacher afterwards. She assured me I'd done a great job, told me she'd love to take my class, then much to my surprise invited me to teach at her studio in New York. I discovered later that she is Lady Gaga's yoga teacher and I fully intend to take her up on her offer.

• Presenting word-perfect dialogue for full locust pose one Friday evening with such gusto that my group were literally applauding me before I'd even finished. It was one of my personal defining moments from training where I thought ‘yeah, I can do this and I'm actually pretty good!’

• Finishing delivering dialogue for a posture (I forget which one) and turning to face the teachers, a married couple. The guy looks at me and he says “Wow. First of all you have a sexy accent…” I can't really remember what the rest of his feedback was, but it was definitely positive. Me and my sexy accent were well chuffed.

• Beginning dialogue delivery one evening by saying “my name's Tim and I'll be your yoga teacher tonight.” My feedback in that clinic was “you're not a yoga teacher tonight: you’re a yoga teacher.”

• A little dog running into the cabana and one member of my group who was in triangle posture shouting “Ah! A rat!”

The darling little posture clinic infiltrating pooch.
• My stomach rumbling so loudly one evening while a fellow Group 11 trainee was presenting dialogue that she forgot her words. I'm *so* sorry, Christine.

• Being told by a teacher at the beginning of posture clinic one evening “you all need to look presentable. If you don’t, I won’t let you present your dialogue. Wear appropriate clothing, do your hair, make yourself look nice.” And that's how this happened.

Well, at least I did my hair.
There were some bad moments too, particularly when I was ill. I remember getting up to do dialogue late one night with a high temperature and literally going through the motions before stumbling over my words and coming to a juddering halt. I cocked up my dialogue for triangle pose as well, to the point that I almost asked if I could do it again the next day. I apologised to the lead teacher for a shitty presentation only for her to tell me that she wanted students to have a brain freeze in posture clinics because it made us realise that the same thing could happen in class and it would get us thinking about ways to deal with it. She then told me she was so pleased mine had happened in her clinic and I should be glad I’d experienced it. A good way to make a positive out of a negative, huh?

It had been my intention to learn all the dialogue before going to LA for training, but in the end I actually only learnt the first four. In hindsight I don't regret this. In the words of Bikram: “ask me why!” Well, I found learning dialogue under pressure to be far easier than when I had all the time in the world. Sometimes I literally only learnt postures an hour before I was due to present them, which sounds a bit unprofessional but it worked for me. And before anyone accuses me of being slapdash, I'm still going back to the dialogue now to strengthen my knowledge of it, and will continue to do so for as long as I'm teaching.

The suggested way of learning the dialogue was in small groups, either doing round robins where each person said a couple of lines or saying it out loud while other people performed the posture so you could get used to working with bodies. I was the opposite, and basically did what everyone said you shouldn't; I learnt my dialogue by sitting quietly in my room on my own and just reading it over and over and over, line by line. Occasionally I'd practice with other people just before going into posture clinics, but for the most part the first time I worked with actual bodies was when I jumped up to present. I know, I'm a rebel - what you gunna do about it? Anyway, if you're reading this and thinking about going to training my advice to you would be to listen to everyone’s advice then find what works for you, even if it flies in the face of what works for others.

Practicing Standing Separate Leg Stretching dialogue just minutes before presenting it, ably assisted by the brilliant Dayna.
So posture clinics were, for the most part, enjoyable, even if we all got a bit restless sitting on the hard floors of the cabanas. They gave us the tools that would set us up for teaching in the real world, and equally important, they put us with people who would become our support group and our closest friends. They were good times.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The yoga bubble: Part 2

The answer as to how I’d cope with two classes per day, along with lectures, posture clinics, and late-night Bollywood movies for the next nine weeks was, somewhat unexpectedly, remarkably well – which came as something of a pleasant surprise after my first class with Bikram pretty much tore me apart. As the days and weeks progressed it became apparent that there was something to be said for the rigorously scheduled days we were confronted with, most of which went something along the lines of: 

• 08:00-08:25 - sign-in

• 08:30-10:00 - yoga class

• 10:00-12:00 - free, but basically shower/shovel as much food down your throat as you can/learn dialogue

• 12:00-12:25 - sign-in

• 1230-16:00 - lecture/posture clinic

• 16:00-16:30 - free time, but basically ‘get your shit together for…’

• 16:30-16:55 - sign-in

• 17:00-18:30 - yoga class

• 18:30-2100 - free time, but again: shower, eat, learn dialogue like your life depends on it (because it does)

• 21:00-21:25 - sign-in!

• 21:30-00:00 - lecture/posture clinic

• 00:00-stupid-o’clock - Sleep if you’re lucky, otherwise … Bollywood movie!

The lectures during the first two weeks of training actually consisted of us stepping up on stage and presenting half moon pose to Bikram while three other students practiced the pose. And yes, by that I mean all 400-odd students going up one by one.

My intention was to get up and get it done as quickly as possible because I thought that if I left it more than a few days nerves would start to set in. And anyway, I figured the sooner I got it done the quicker I could get on with learning the dialogue for the next posture in the sequence. Did I mention dialogue? In Bikram Yoga you have to learn a set dialogue for all 26 postures and two breathing exercises. I know - intense huh?

But intending to do something and actually doing it are two different things, because they would only accept students ready for half moon in batches of 20, which meant it was all a bit of trial and error looking over to see when a new batch of students was needed, and then basically legging it as quickly as possible to the special 20 seats set aside for those about to present. I can’t tell you how many times I pegged it across the room only to find myself the unfortunate number 21. It was like a really shit version of musical chairs without the music. Eventually my little core group (or the British Invasion as we were later dubbed) started strategically planning were to sit so we were as close as humanly possible to the pre-half moon seats.

And after a couple of days … BOOM, success!

Getting up and presenting half moon was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done - not because I had to stand up in front of 400 people but because … well, it’s Bikram, isn’t it? You’re standing up in front of the man who created this yoga, who put his name to it, who knows it inside out and you’ve got to try and impress him. So, y’know, it’s a BIG DEAL.

Anyway, eventually my turn comes and I step-up onto the stage, take the microphone and say “hello Bikram, my name’s Tim and I’m from Bikram Yoga Chiswick.” He nods and says “begin please.” So I do as I'm told and begin. My biggest fear was that I would just go blank and the words I’d worked so hard to memorise - that I’d actually taught on several occasions back at my studio in preparation - would just go flying out of my head. We’d seen it already with a few other students where nerves had taken hold and their confidence fell away and I was petrified it would happen to me. But with no other choice I took a deep breath and began.

“Everybody together. Feet together at the line, heels and toes touching each other. Arms over the head sideways, palms together…”

And then I was off. The words just spilled out of my mouth like they’d been fighting to be released for so long and I’d finally said “oh go on then - get out” to them. And as they came I got more animated, gesturing with my free hand, changing the tone of my speech when saying words like “come down and push, and push, and push,” truly believing that I could get my three students to do the very best half moons imaginable with just the power of my voice.

Then before I knew it I was done. My students came back up, stopped in the middle and brought their arms down by their sides. I lowered the microphone and turned to face Bikram who sat in his chair with a look on his face that I simply could not read. Would he smile and say well done? Or would he wave his hand in the air to indicate it was OK, but could've been better? Worse still, had I completely misjudged how I thought I'd done and he would tell me I was awful?

The seconds that followed felt like an eternity … and then he said the following words, words I will never forget:

“Excellent. Faultless. I have no correction. Thank you, Boss. NEXT!” 

The next thing I know I’m handing the microphone to someone else and taking my place ready to perform the posture for the next student. Obviously, I was deliriously happy for the rest of the day, and quite frankly the rest of the week if I’m truly honest.

Any time I felt l like I was struggling at training I’d always think back to Bikram’s words in the lecture room that day and take a little strength from what he said to me. Because when your guru, the man who started it all, tells you he has no corrections you know you’re doing something right, right?

Monday, July 09, 2012

The yoga bubble: Part 1

It’s been a little over three weeks since the end of Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Spring 2012 and I’ve yet to write about my nine week experience in Los Angeles because … well, it’s difficult to put into words, to be honest. Briar, my fellow trainee from Bikram Yoga Chiswick summed it up best with these words “… [I] feel like nobody in the real world understands what we've been through. It sounds trivial if I explain it in a way they understand; pretentious if I give it the justice it deserves.”

She’s right - but I’m going to give it a bash anyway.

My home away from home for nearly 10 weeks.
Training was without doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The days were long, grueling on both the body and the mind. I was left with aching knees and tight hamstrings, I went deaf in my left ear for almost three weeks due to the amount of sweat pouring into it. I fell ill for two weeks with a sore throat, temperature and a hacking cough that I could not shake.

And yet despite that it was the most brilliant, memorable, utterly bonkers and wonderful time of my life - a true life-changing experience. It sounds corny, but I honestly feel as if I returned from LA a different person from the one that had left almost 10 weeks earlier. Looking back, training wasn’t so much about learning to be a yoga teacher so much as it was about learning to be a better person and helping us to unlock the innate skills that all of us possess - allowing us, as Bikram would say, to grow “like a flower petal blooming.”

None of this was apparent from the word go, however.

The first day or so in LA was a bit weird, to be honest. I arrived on the Friday and registration wasn’t until the Sunday afternoon, so I had a bit of time to kill. I checked out Redondo Beach (where The OC was shot) and scouted out the local shops on the Saturday, before meeting a fellow UK trainee named Dave in the evening which, even if he’d turned out to be an absolute arsehole was lovely simply because I’d literally not spoken to anyone aside from the hotel staff since arriving; as it turned out Dave was utterly brilliant and one of the main reasons that I ended up having such a memorable experience at training.

By Sunday afternoon all the other 400-odd trainees had arrived and we set about registering and collecting our trainee binders and anatomy books (gulp!). The atmosphere in the Radisson hotel was genuinely electric because none of us knew what to expect.

My folder of yoga knowledge and my baby dialogue; the latter was a constant companion throughout training and even as I write this it's sitting on my desk within easy grasp.
The real beginning came the following day, however, when we were introduced to the man himself for the first time. I distinctly remember the moment Bikram came into the lecture room - the silence that descended as he strode in, donned a microphone headset and for the enthusiastically uttered the words that we would hear so many times and mimic so often in the weeks that followed: “Check, check! One, two, three, four … HI GUYS!”

Bikram is such a remarkable character, far more so than I thought he would be, and I’ll write more about him another time. What I remember from this first appearance though, was that he was very welcoming, inordinately proud of his new shoes, and wore a very sparkly, expensive-looking Rolex. And a few hours later we were all in the Radisson’s ballroom (converted to serve as a hot yoga room) taking our first class from Bikram.

What I remember most about this class is that at some point about halfway through I had to throw my hand up in the air to call for help; I was cramping up from a combination of too much effort, hyperventilating, and being too hot (not in a good way for a change). One of the staff teachers helped me out of the room and sat me down outside to recover. While I got myself together I couldn’t help but think how my teacher Mandy had told me that she’d walked out of her first class with Bikram years before and now here I was doing exactly the same … and then I inexplicably burst into tears.

At this point one of the other staff teachers came over and asked me what the matter was. Through my tears I tried to explain that I was so far from home, that I didn’t want to walk out of Bikram’s first class and felt as if I was letting myself down as well as my friends and teachers who’d encouraged me to come to training. I expected this teacher to put a reassuring arm around my shoulders and tell me it was OK; instead she looked down at me and said “if that’s all you’re worrying about you need to man-up and get back in the room.”

I had been *this* close to thinking I couldn’t cope with training and giving up before we’d even really started, but those words shocked me into doing exactly what I’d been told to do. This teacher’s name was Kat, and on graduation night I told her this story and thanked her for what she’d said to me; without that shock to the system it’s quite likely I would’ve been on the next plane home.

(The tears, by the way, were not me just being a wuss; we were later told that it was highly likely training would lead to us experiencing what was called an ‘emotional release’ - basically an unexpected emotional breakdown, for want of a better term. Some people had them halfway through, some right at the end; seems I got mine out of the way bright and early)

Anyway, I went back into the room, somehow finished the class, and then staggered out wondering exactly how the hell I was going to manage two classes per day, along with lectures, posture clinics, and late-night Bollywood movies for the next nine weeks.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

First class

I've been back from LA for five days now, and it's been 10 days since I graduated as a Bikram Yoga teacher after nine weeks in 'Bikram's torture chamber,' as he calls it. I'd planned on writing something about my experiences on training before now, but to be honest I'm still trying to process the whole thing so, y'know, just bear with me for a while.

In the meantime, I taught my first class today. It was at Bikram Yoga Surbiton, a new studio owned by my two lovely senior teachers Mandy and Helen, which opened while I was in the States. I'd previously seen BYS when it was a building site before going off on training, so on Sunday I headed over to practice a class there and get used to the studio now there's actually walls and stuff there. Sunday's class was great, but jet lag kicked in about halfway through and I just wanted to curl up on my mat and go to sleep. I went again on Monday to prove to myself that I could still practice OK and to support Briar, who was on training with me, as she taught her first class there. I'm pleased to report I experienced no waves of narcolepsy in this class, although Briar did give me some stick for not kicking my leg out in standing head to knee.


Anyway, I was on the board for the 10am class this morning, and I'll be honest: things didn't exactly go to plan.

I don't live too far away from the Surbiton studio and my intention was to get there nice and early this morning to greet the happy smiling faces of all the students who would be taking my class. Sadly, traffic conspired against me. I left home at 8:40 and an hour later I'd gone just a handful of miles. Panic set in because a) I didn't want to be late (obviously), and b) what sort of an impression does missing your first class make? I won't lie - there were some choice swears being uttered in West London this morning, though perhaps not quite so many as were uttered in LA; seriously, I developed such a potty mouth during training. Can you believe it?

Eventually I managed to rat race around some side roads and head into Surby from the complete opposite direction, ultimately arriving at the studio with five minutes to spare. Helen, bless 'er, had already briefed the five newbies who'd turned up on what to expect so I just needed to pop my shorts on, grab a towel, and take a couple of minutes to compose myself.

Ironically, stressing out about the traffic actually made me stop worrying about teaching the class so I just walked in and got on with it.

So, teaching. Well, nothing really prepares you for getting up in front of a class full of hot sweaty people and encouraging them to contort their bodies into all manner of bizarre shapes - not even the stuff you do on training - but once those initial nerves passed I really got into it. No one died, I pretty much stuck to 90 minutes (I think I was one or two minutes over), and surprisingly a lot more of the dialogue spilled out of my brain then I thought would be the case. I was lucky to have a handful of familiar faces in the crowd too, so if I did find my dialogue faltering I could just look to them and their bodies would guide me towards what I needed to say next. Special shout out to my newbies too, who were awesome and really put, as Bikram would say, 110% effort in.

Afterwards Helen gave me some really helpful feedback as to how I could improve in a couple of areas, but unless she was outright lying to me she seemed pretty pleased with how things went. I was too, to be honest; I sometimes overanalyse things like this but against my own expectations, and with maybe a couple of minor exceptions, I don't think it could've gone much better for a first class.

Round two's over at Bikram Yoga Chiswick tomorrow - and this time I'm going to make sure I'm there with at least half an hour to spare.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Feet together at the line

So here I am, days away from hitting the halfway point of Bikram Yoga Teacher Training. It's a Sunday afternoon and I'm plonked on my hotel bed taking a little breather between learning the dialogue for Tree pose and Toe Stand.

We started posture clinics two weeks ago - the bit where you stand up and recite the dialogue for the postures while fellow trainees do the pose in front of you - and they're going well. I'll be honest, my heart does start beating pretty quickly when I jump up to take my turn, and there have been a couple of times where bits of the dialogue have escaped me, but when that happens I've just done my best to plough on regardless and I'm pleased to report that the feedback I've had so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Hooray for me!

Elsewhere we've had anatomy lectures with the brilliant and hilarious Dr. P (a man I could listen to endlessly, which is just as well bearing in mind that some of his lectures went on well past midnight), and one anatomy test (which I scored 28/30 on, so I'm going to say rather modestly: NAILED IT).

Two classes every day are taking their toll a bit; my back's been a bit sore and one of my ankles has been grumbling a bit, but on the whole I think I'm coping pretty well. That said, the detoxification of my body has led to an outbreak of zits the likes of which I've not experienced since the age of 14. On the plus side unlike when I was 14 at least I'm not fat; far from it, in fact - just today I nudged done a hole on my belt which leads me to the terrifying realisation that by the end of training I might need to start making my own holes in it or face the prospect of my trousers falling down to my ankles at the most inopportune time.

On the plus side, my serratus anterior muscles are really quite defined now (and that's a boast not only of how training has changed my body, but also of my newfound anatomical knowledge).

All in all then, this training thing is going pretty well. I'm sure there are still plenty of potentially horrific surprises ahead of us, but I'm glad I'm here and I'm glad I'm doing this, which is just as well bearing in mind how much it's costing.

Anyway, here's me in triangle on Venice Beach. Note my lovely new hat - isn't it nice?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

First flight and hello LA

So I did it - I bloody well flew for the first time.

And surprisingly it wasn't the white-knuckle scream-fest I expected it to be.

OK, so the emotionally charged farewell with Sparky Ma left me a bit of a teary mess, and then I had to surrender a lovely bottle of shower gel that smelt like macaroons because it was over 100ml, but I was remarkably chillaxed while waiting to board in departures.

What made it really brilliant though was the fact that after telling the cabin crew that it was my first flight and I was a wee bit nervous they took such amazing care of me. And if anyone from Virgin Atlantic reads this, please give Ash a massive bonus because he went above and beyond the sort of care I thought I'd get. How so? The dude came and sat next to me during takeoff so that he could reassure me and explain everything that was going on. Utterly amazing, and I owe him (as well as all the other crew members) a massive thank you for making my first time in the air so smooth and uneventful.

Plus he smuggled me some Hagen Daas ice cream when everyone else in economy had to go without.

So anyway I'm here in LA now and it's ... Well, a bit weird to be honest. I've only met (and even then only briefly) one other person who's doing the training, so I kind of feel like I'm in limbo a bit. Kind of like a very lonely holiday for one. I keep trying to engage the bar staff in conversation just so I can talk to someone.

But registration and orientation is on Sunday so everyone will be here by then and we can get on with the task of learning to be yoga teachers, which I know isn't going to be easy, but will, I'm sure, be a totally memorable life changing experience.

In the meantime, I've made good use of my one full day to be foot loose and fancy free in LA (until mid-June) by scouting out the local shops for supplies, grabbing my first stateside Grande Misto, and jumping on the bus to go to Redondo Beach, where as a massive fan of The OC I made a pilgrimage to the location that was used as the Bait Shop club venue.

I also saw a seal in the bay (I think it actually stuck its tongue out at me - RUDE) and woke a lovely old lady up when she nodded off at the bus stop. Oh, and I've started on my much needed tan (the last thing I want is to get a reputation as London's pastiest yoga teacher).

A couple of other things: everyone here is *so* polite, and the city (at least what I've seen of it) is remarkably litter free; London take note please. That said, the frequency of the buses is bloody awful. I'm never going to complain about having to wait five minutes for a bus in London again (not that I actually use them that much, but still...).

Anyway, I'm not totally convinced I'm actually going to get used to being in this place, but we'll see. I just want to get going with the yoga please!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Leaving on a jet plane

That title? Unbelievably not a joke.

I'm writing this post sitting in my Mini dealer on a chilly Thursday morning while Clubbie's getting an MOT. By the time you read it, I'll be on my way to Los Angeles.

Why? Well, it all comes back to something that happened around this time last year when we did a charity class at yoga and one of my teachers let me teach a posture - y'know, just for a giggle. It was a giggle, but then when I mentioned it to another of my teachers he said 'well why don't you think about doing it for real? I think you'd be great.'

I don’t know about you, but when someone says they think you’ll be great at something it tends to stick in your mind. So, almost exactly a year down the line from that moment and I'm doing it. I'm going to LA to train as a Bikram yoga teacher.

Obviously there's a bit more to it than having a bit of a laugh at a class last year and being given a nice compliment - losing my job certainly made me think about it more seriously because what better time is there to think about such a massive life changing event than when you find yourself at a crossroads in your career?

I won't lie, it's not been an easy decision to make because first and foremost it's not the cheapest thing in the world to do. But perhaps more than that, as I've mentioned before, I'm utterly petrified of flying and you have to do the training in LA. So I have to fly. I did look into other methods of getting there, but even I have to concede that 11 hours of screaming on a plane is preferable to five days on a cargo ship followed by a couple of days on a train.

What's brilliant about all this is that it's not a complete career change and I'll be able to carry on with editorial work as well as teaching yoga. In fact, I think they'll compliment each other rather well, and it means I can actually be a bit picky about exactly what editorial work I choose to take on. I've been working on a couple of books for a London-based publisher these last few months which has been an utterly delightful experience, and so far removed from the stresses I experienced in the last few months of my job before it spectacularly imploded. The chap I've been working for has told me he’d like me to help out on some other stuff when I'm back, which is great; quite frankly, if the only publishing work I ever did again was for him I'd be a happy bunny.

As for yoga, well, for someone who writes for a living I'm finding it difficult to put into words just how supportive and brilliant everyone at the studio - staff and fellow yogi alike - has been since I told them I wanted to go on training. They've given me advice, let me teach postures to get used to standing in front of a class, and generally just made me feel like I've made absolutely the right decision. The studio owner wrote me a lovely letter of recommendation. They're throwing a party on Saturday to send us off (another lovely fellow student is also going to training) in proper BYC style.

So I'm off for a bit. Training is an intensive nine-week course, plus I've got a couple of days either side just to hang out in LA which incredibly, and very conveniently, is the one place in the world I've actually always wanted to visit, so that's nice. I've already used Google maps to find the nearest Starbucks and a bookshop so large it'll probably make me cry. I'd like to say I'll try to blog while I'm out there, but the truth is I honestly don't think I'll get the chance. That being the case, expect a couple of epic posts sometime around the end of June when I'm back and my tiny brain has had time to process the whole experience. In the meantime, if you're missing your occasional hit of Tim over the next couple of months and want to know how things are going, feel free to follow me on Twitter (what do you mean you're not already?) or Facebook me, as I'm more likely to tweet or fire off short status updates reassuring everyone that I'm not dead. Or why not check out the Bikram Yoga Surbiton website? It's a new studio being opened by two of my favourite teachers, and I'm honoured to be writing the official studio blog for them. I've cued up a few posts to go live while I'm away and I won't lie, I think they're pretty damn good (modest much?).

Anyway, I think that's about it for the moment. Behave yourselves while I'm gone and I'll see you on the other side.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Get Carter: Part II

So I'm still banging on to everyone I encounter about how much I enjoyed John Carter, and yes, I do plan on seeing it again, and yes I still think you should go and see it for the first time.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I enjoyed the movie enough that I want to explore Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom universe further, which obviously means jumping into the original novels. The problem is that there's so many different versions of the books that I really don't know where to start. I was tempted by Disney's new omnibus editions, but as I said before they've inexplicably cut Burroughs' forewords from each story, which apparently are quite important, so that rules them out; I mean, it would be like going to Pizza Express and not ordering dough balls for a starter - i.e. WRONG and BAD.

Lovely looking book; missing some text, apparently.

Ultimately I settled for this edition:

Yes, the cover uses one of those woeful posters I ranted about in my last post.
The interesting thing about this book is that it's a novelisation - yes, it's a novel based on a movie that is itself based on a book (WTF?!) - but it also includes Burroughs' original version of A Princess of Mars too. So that's too versions of the same (-ish) story for a fiver. Seems like a bargain, I think you'll agree, and it'll no doubt be fascinating to compare the two versions to see what changes the filmmakers made.

Before settling on this version I looked at a few other copies too. Basically, because the John Carter series is out of copyright various publishers have released their own version, and while I know they say you should never judge a book by its cover I'll let you into a little secret: I DO. ALWAYS. I hate - and I mean *HATE* - shitty looking book covers.

Like these.

Actually, this one is sort of OK in a pulpy kind of way. Not 100% my cup of tea, but I could live with it if push came to shove.
This, in contrast, is just HIDEOUS.

I actually had this one in my hand in Waterstones in Chiswick the other day but couldn't bring myself to buy it based purely on the horrible cover. I am such a snob.
Anyway, I got to thinking, as I very occasionally do, and that led to a realisation that I should, just for shits and giggles, put my money where my mouth is (not that this is actually costing me anything) and have a bash at designing my own covers for the John Carter series. The thought stuck with me for a few days, until today when I had a little bit of time to kill and caved into the notion.

The idea behind this is pretty much twofold:

1. Because I think someone somewhere should've seized the idea of running out some really beautiful versions of these books to cater to people like me who discovered the Barsoom series as a result of the movie (I refuse to believe I'm the only one).

2. That you can do something clean, contemporary and eye-catching that would really stand out on a bookstore shelf and actually sell a few copies.

Now, let's not get carried away here - remember, what follows were literally done in about an hour and a half and are by no means perfect, but I think they give a general idea of what I mean. I'm imagining a nice compact hardcover edition; big hardbacks get on my nerves, but I've always liked chunky little ones - they seem a bit different, somewhat unusual, and collectable, which is important when you're dealing with a series of 11 books. Also, don't get it into your mind that I was throwing my little-used artistic talents into play here - I certainly wasn't going to whip out some oil paints and throw together a John Carter portrait. No, instead the ideas I had were based solely on typography rather than an image, because I think you can do some lovely striking things with words alone.

My first idea was basically a massive rip-off of a hardcover edition I've got of the Dave Eggers novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, which I was drawn to several years ago because the story actually starts on the front cover:

Look at that - the story starts on the front! CRAZY! But really quite cool.

I've always liked the grey and black colours on that cover, so my first thought for my John Carter was something like that with the name of the book literally plastered across the cover in, if you'll excuse my French, massive fuck-off letters.

Like this:

Leng edition, version 01
Now, this isn't perfect but it gives you an idea of what I was getting at. What isn't perfect about this is that I wanted the type to fill out every part of the grey, but as Mick Jagger once sang, you can't always get what you want, and in this instance I was foiled by the lack of depth in the font, which ultimately gives rise to an inch or so of grey area between the title and ERB's name. Still, better than some of the other covers above, eh?

(ooo, bitch)

Here's another go:

Leng edition, version 02
I'm not totally sold on the massive 'OF' here, but all the space seems to be filled OK. 

And then I thought I'd try something a bit different:

Leng edition, version 03
I'm not usually a fan of replacing letters with spherical objects, but I decided to make an exception here. That said, I do think it kind of needs a bit of the missing 'O' fading in around the curvature of the planet - a bit like how the 'D' appears in the Dreamworks logo:

I also liked the idea of the sun rising over Mars just to give a little added something.

Leng edition, version 04
That's a really crappy, cheap-looking lens flare going on there, but it let me convey the general idea of what I was thinking without actually bothering to put too much effort in.

And it's around about there that I got bored of the whole idea and decided to put my crayons away. But do you get what I was aiming for? That you can do something that's not a hideously awful drawing to put on the front of these classic tales? What I've done is by no means perfect, but it could be - certainly if there was some financial incentive there (HINT, HINT, publishers). If I was going to go back to it I'd certainly try to find a way of tightening up the gaps between the lines just so there was less empty space, and the end result would, I'm pretty sure, be rather nice.

It certainly seems to work for Cormac McCarthy.